This post is a response to a recent post on the blog Imagining History by Dan MacDonald.
I need to start by mentioning the title. Engaged AGAINST the Mainstream would be far more impressive. "Engaging with the mainstream" only really refers to those that have it wrong (implicit in Dan's post from my reading). That is, those people who use mainstream methods to ask leftist questions. Those who build alternative frameworks to attack the mainstream are engaged against the mainstream in my opinion. These posts are concerned with both types of people.
I cannot dispute Dan's conclusion that of those around us in the UMass Amherst Economics department, as a general rule the younger the person the more they seem to engage in what I consider to be mainstream methodology AND IDEOLOGY. Certainly mainstream methods have not become more "correct" in the last 40 years, is it fair to imply as Dan does that these methods and ideas have become more hegemonic (even in our department)? Certainly it is well documented that social sciences have become more empirical in methodology over this period. The question then becomes; does the perception of younger heterodox economists engaging with more mainstream methods really hold water, or are they just becoming more cough* "analytically rigorous" than their predecessors?
What is more interesting to me is what actually makes an economist heterodox?
I don't view people using mainstream methodology to answer "leftist" questions as radical economists, just liberal mainstream people and our department is full of them.
Why then do I give primacy to methodology? I view people using non-traditional methods because of a philosophical problem with empirical analysis as far more radical (heterodox) than those using hegemonic methodology to ask socially progressive questions. My reasons for this are too complex to address here and will be addressed further at a later date.
MacDonald's conclusion suggests that thinks along a similar line. The suggestion that people who are not engaged to the mainstream will receive better jobs (historically) than self styled heterodox people who use mainstream methods certainly is true in the history of our department. Does this hold in a wider sample? I think those who are engaged with the mainstream as opposed to against it never were and never will be heterodox and thus we have no evidence of them in heterodox positions.
As soon as they do get a job, these "heterodox economists" will apply their mainstream models to questions that are not the socially progressive ones they pretended to care about in grad school, but rather the traditional questions that are published in mainstream economics journals, that will result in tenure and a meaningless existence as another second rate economist. (Prove me wrong people.)
Should we engage with the mainstream? No. Should we use mainstream methods to engage against the mainstream? Historically people seem to fail at this and end up just as fringe members of said mainstream when they try. Should we bother with the mainstream at all? No? Should we spend our time making what is now radical more widely accepted? I would say yes, it is all we can do.
Thanks Dan, great post.